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Machine Learning

This introduction to machine learning provides an overview of its history, important definitions, applications and concerns within businesses today.

What is machine learning?

Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) and computer science which focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans learn, gradually improving its accuracy.

IBM has a rich history with machine learning. One of its own, Arthur Samuel, is credited for coining the term, “machine learning” with his research (PDF, 481 KB) (link resides outside IBM) around the game of checkers. Robert Nealey, the self-proclaimed checkers master, played the game on an IBM 7094 computer in 1962, and he lost to the computer. Compared to what can be done today, this feat almost seems trivial, but it’s considered a major milestone within the field of artificial intelligence. Over the next couple of decades, the technological developments around storage and processing power will enable some innovative products that we know and love today, such as Netflix’s recommendation engine or self-driving cars.

Machine learning is an important component of the growing field of data science. Through the use of statistical methods, algorithms are trained to make classifications or predictions, uncovering key insights within data mining projects. These insights subsequently drive decision making within applications and businesses, ideally impacting key growth metrics. As big data continues to expand and grow, the market demand for data scientists will increase, requiring them to assist in the identification of the most relevant business questions and subsequently the data to answer them.

Machine Learning vs. Deep Learning vs. Neural Networks

Since deep learning and machine learning tend to be used interchangeably, it’s worth noting the nuances between the two. Machine learning, deep learning, and neural networks are all sub-fields of artificial intelligence. However, deep learning is actually a sub-field of machine learning, and neural networks is a sub-field of deep learning.

The way in which deep learning and machine learning differ is in how each algorithm learns. Deep learning automates much of the feature extraction piece of the process, eliminating some of the manual human intervention required and enabling the use of larger data sets. You can think of deep learning as "scalable machine learning" as Lex Fridman notes in this MIT lecture (01:08:05) (link resides outside IBM). Classical, or "non-deep", machine learning is more dependent on human intervention to learn. Human experts determine the set of features to understand the differences between data inputs, usually requiring more structured data to learn.

"Deep" machine learning can leverage labeled datasets, also known as supervised learning, to inform its algorithm, but it doesn’t necessarily require a labeled dataset. It can ingest unstructured data in its raw form (e.g. text, images), and it can automatically determine the set of features which distinguish different categories of data from one another. Unlike machine learning, it doesn't require human intervention to process data, allowing us to scale machine learning in more interesting ways. Deep learning and neural networks are primarily credited with accelerating progress in areas, such as computer vision, natural language processing, and speech recognition.

Neural networks, or artificial neural networks (ANNs), are comprised of a node layers, containing an input layer, one or more hidden layers, and an output layer. Each node, or artificial neuron, connects to another and has an associated weight and threshold. If the output of any individual node is above the specified threshold value, that node is activated, sending data to the next layer of the network. Otherwise, no data is passed along to the next layer of the network. The “deep” in deep learning is just referring to the depth of layers in a neural network. A neural network that consists of more than three layers—which would be inclusive of the inputs and the output—can be considered a deep learning algorithm or a deep neural network. A neural network that only has two or three layers is just a basic neural network.

See the blog post “AI vs. Machine Learning vs. Deep Learning vs. Neural Networks: What’s the Difference?” for a closer look at how the different concepts relate.

How machine learning works

UC Berkeley (link resides outside IBM) breaks out the learning system of a machine learning algorithm into three main parts.

  1. A Decision Process: In general, machine learning algorithms are used to make a prediction or classification. Based on some input data, which can be labelled or unlabeled, your algorithm will produce an estimate about a pattern in the data.
  2. An Error Function: An error function serves to evaluate the prediction of the model. If there are known examples, an error function can make a comparison to assess the accuracy of the model.
  3. An Model Optimization Process: If the model can fit better to the data points in the training set, then weights are adjusted to reduce the discrepancy between the known example and the model estimate. The algorithm will repeat this evaluate and optimize process, updating weights autonomously until a threshold of accuracy has been met.  

Machine learning methods

Machine learning classifiers fall into three primary categories.

Supervised machine learning            

Supervised learning, also known as supervised machine learning, is defined by its use of labeled datasets to train algorithms that to classify data or predict outcomes accurately. As input data is fed into the model, it adjusts its weights until the model has been fitted appropriately. This occurs as part of the cross validation process to ensure that the model avoids overfitting or underfitting. Supervised learning helps organizations solve for a variety of real-world problems at scale, such as classifying spam in a separate folder from your inbox. Some methods used in supervised learning include neural networks, naïve bayes, linear regression, logistic regression, random forest, support vector machine (SVM), and more.

Unsupervised machine learning

Unsupervised learning, also known as unsupervised machine learning, uses machine learning algorithms to analyze and cluster unlabeled datasets. These algorithms discover hidden patterns or data groupings without the need for human intervention. Its ability to discover similarities and differences in information make it the ideal solution for exploratory data analysis, cross-selling strategies, customer segmentation, image and pattern recognition. It’s also used to reduce the number of features in a model through the process of dimensionality reduction; principal component analysis (PCA) and singular value decomposition (SVD) are two common approaches for this. Other algorithms used in unsupervised learning include neural networks, k-means clustering, probabilistic clustering methods, and more.

Semi-supervised learning 

Semi-supervised learning offers a happy medium between supervised and unsupervised learning. During training, it uses a smaller labeled data set to guide classification and feature extraction from a larger, unlabeled data set. Semi-supervised learning can solve the problem of having not enough labeled data (or not being able to afford to label enough data) to train a supervised learning algorithm. 

For a deep dive into the differences between these approaches, check out "Supervised vs. Unsupervised Learning: What's the Difference?"

Reinforcement machine learning

Reinforcement machine learning is a behavioral machine learning model that is similar to supervised learning, but the algorithm isn’t trained using sample data. This model learns as it goes by using trial and error. A sequence of successful outcomes will be reinforced to develop the best recommendation or policy for a given problem.

The IBM Watson® system that won the Jeopardy! challenge in 2011 makes a good example. The system used reinforcement learning to decide whether to attempt an answer (or question, as it were), which square to select on the board, and how much to wager—especially on daily doubles.

Learn more about reinforcement learning.                                                          

Real-world machine learning use cases

Here are just a few examples of machine learning you might encounter every day:

Speech recognition: It is also known as automatic speech recognition (ASR), computer speech recognition, or speech-to-text, and it is a capability which uses natural language processing (NLP) to process human speech into a written format. Many mobile devices incorporate speech recognition into their systems to conduct voice search—e.g. Siri—or provide more accessibility around texting.

Customer service:  Online chatbots are replacing human agents along the customer journey. They answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) around topics, like shipping, or provide personalized advice, cross-selling products or suggesting sizes for users, changing the way we think about customer engagement across websites and social media platforms. Examples include messaging bots on e-commerce sites with virtual agents, messaging apps, such as Slack and Facebook Messenger, and tasks usually done by virtual assistants and voice assistants.

Computer vision: This AI technology enables computers and systems to derive meaningful information from digital images, videos and other visual inputs, and based on those inputs, it can take action. This ability to provide recommendations distinguishes it from image recognition tasks. Powered by convolutional neural networks, computer vision has applications within photo tagging in social media, radiology imaging in healthcare, and self-driving cars within the automotive industry. 

Recommendation engines: Using past consumption behavior data, AI algorithms can help to discover data trends that can be used to develop more effective cross-selling strategies. This is used to make relevant add-on recommendations to customers during the checkout process for online retailers.

Automated stock trading: Designed to optimize stock portfolios, AI-driven high-frequency trading platforms make thousands or even millions of trades per day without human intervention.

Challenges of machine learning

As machine learning technology advances, it has certainly made our lives easier. However, implementing machine learning within businesses has also raised a number of ethical concerns surrounding AI technologies. Some of these include:

Technological singularity

While this topic garners a lot of public attention, many researchers are not concerned with the idea of AI surpassing human intelligence in the near or immediate future. This is also referred to as superintelligence, which Nick Bostrum defines as “any intellect that vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.” Despite the fact that Strong AI and superintelligence is not imminent in society, the idea of it raises some interesting questions as we consider the use of autonomous systems, like self-driving cars. It’s unrealistic to think that a driverless car would never get into a car accident, but who is responsible and liable under those circumstances? Should we still pursue autonomous vehicles, or do we limit the integration of this technology to create only semi-autonomous vehicles which promote safety among drivers? The jury is still out on this, but these are the types of ethical debates that are occurring as new, innovative AI technology develops.

AI impact on jobs

While a lot of public perception around artificial intelligence centers around job loss, this concern should be probably reframed. With every disruptive, new technology, we see that the market demand for specific job roles shift. For example, when we look at the automotive industry, many manufacturers, like GM, are shifting to focus on electric vehicle production to align with green initiatives. The energy industry isn’t going away, but the source of energy is shifting from a fuel economy to an electric one. Artificial intelligence should be viewed in a similar manner, where artificial intelligence will shift the demand of jobs to other areas. There will need to be individuals to help manage these systems as data grows and changes every day. There will still need to be resources to address more complex problems within the industries that are most likely to be affected by job demand shifts, like customer service. The important aspect of artificial intelligence and its effect on the job market will be helping individuals transition to these new areas of market demand.

Privacy

Privacy tends to be discussed in the context of data privacy, data protection and data security, and these concerns have allowed policymakers to make more strides here in recent years. For example, in 2016, GDPR legislation was created to protect the personal data of people in the European Union and European Economic Area, giving individuals more control of their data. In the United States, individual states are developing policies, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which require businesses to inform consumers about the collection of their data. This recent legislation has forced companies to rethink how they store and use personally identifiable data (PII). As a result, investments within security have become an increasing priority for businesses as they seek to eliminate any vulnerabilities and opportunities for surveillance, hacking, and cyberattacks.

Bias and discrimination

Instances of bias and discrimination across a number of intelligent systems have raised many ethical questions regarding the use of artificial intelligence. How can we safeguard against bias and discrimination when the training data itself can lend itself to bias? While companies typically have well-meaning intentions around their automation efforts, Reuters (link resides outside IBM) highlights some of the unforeseen consequences of incorporating AI into hiring practices. In their effort to automate and simplify a process, Amazon unintentionally biased potential job candidates by gender for open technical roles, and they ultimately had to scrap the project. As events like these surface, Harvard Business Review (link resides outside IBM) has raised other pointed questions around the use of AI within hiring practices, such as what data should you be able to use when evaluating a candidate for a role.

Bias and discrimination aren’t limited to the human resources function either; it can be found in a number of applications from facial recognition software to social media algorithms.

As businesses become more aware of the risks with AI, they’ve also become more active this discussion around AI ethics and values. For example, last year IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna shared that IBM has sunset its general purpose IBM facial recognition and analysis products, emphasizing that “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.”

To read more about this, check out IBM’s policy blog, relaying its point of view on “A Precision Regulation Approach to Controlling Facial Recognition Technology Exports.”

Accountability

Since there isn’t significant legislation to regulate AI practices, there is no real enforcement mechanism to ensure that ethical AI is practiced. The current incentives for companies to adhere to these guidelines are the negative repercussions of an unethical AI system to the bottom line. To fill the gap, ethical frameworks have emerged as part of a collaboration between ethicists and researchers to govern the construction and distribution of AI models within society. However, at the moment, these only serve to guide, and research (link resides outside IBM) (PDF, 1 MB) shows that the combination of distributed responsibility and lack of foresight into potential consequences isn’t necessarily conducive to preventing harm to society.

To read more on IBM's position around AI Ethics, read more here

Machine learning and IBM Cloud

IBM Watson Studio on IBM Cloud Pak for Data supports the end-to-end machine learning lifecycle on a data and AI platform. You can build, train and manage machine learning models wherever your data lives and deploy them anywhere in your hybrid multicloud environment.

To get started, sign up for an IBMid and create your IBM Cloud account.